What made Gauls and Franks laugh? Hear some very very old jokes that made our ancestors' sides split.
Well that last episode was depressing wasn’t it? I figure this one should be a palate cleanser. So today we’re going to talk about humor in Gaul and Francia. If you thought my jokes were bad…you still will, but I wasn’t the only one. In fairness to the Gallo-Romans and later Franks, jokes are a lot funnier when they were sudden, unexpected and the audience understood its context. For example, one satirical story that Gregory of Tours told was about a man named Maurus. In this tale, Maurus owned a slave who fled to the church of Saint Lupus in Troyes, and prayed to the saint for deliverance. Maurus grabbed the slave and mocked the saint, saying that Lupus was powerless to stop him. At that, the kindly and merciful saint reached down from heaven, bound Maurus’ tongue, made his body dance uncontrollably and then killed him. I’m guessing you didn’t laugh at that, but apparently that was hilarious back then. It was ridiculous and even transgressive, as it depicted a venerable saint enacting petty vengeance on someone just for bad-mouthing him.
On a surface-level Gregory of Tours’ story mocks the unrighteous who blaspheme against the saints and receive just punishment; on a deeper level it might be mocking the idea of praying to saints for divine intercession. It is hard to tell with humor, because, “you had to be there,” is a big part of every joke. Jokes tend to age like milk and sour very quickly. God knows my jokes won’t be funny a week after I tell them…assuming that they ever were. As such, it’s hard for historians to distinguish what was meant to be humorous because jokes involve immediacy and context, both of which we often don’t have. Over the past few decades historians have taken humor more seriously, and try to find the funny in older works. Fifty years ago it was accepted in the historical field that every story Gregory of Tours told was exactly how he viewed the world. But now, more historians are questioning if perhaps some of the far-fetched stories weren’t religious beliefs or chronologies but were in fact just jokes. It’s hard to tell with humans when we’re being ridiculous on purpose or accident as from a distance it looks the same. And I don’t think our age is immune to it. Even though we have audio and visual recordings which make our humor more understandable, I’m sure people 500 years from now will look at us and not always understand when we were trying to be funny or not. Forget 500 years, I have trouble watching comedy films from the 1970s because they’re so corny and its hard to tell what is intentionally funny or not. While this podcast’s humor surely isn’t timeless I can take a small comfort in knowing that nothing is.
If you’ve studied antiquity you know that Classical Greeks loved humor. They included humor in their plays, and even invented the western idea of comedy, although ‘comedy’ back then didn’t mean a humorous play. Instead, ‘comedy’ meant a play with a happy resolution as the heroes triumphed and the villains were defeated, as opposed to tragedy, wherein the heroes succumbed to their flaws and usually died. Way to give away the ending ancient Greeks; labelling every play by how they end means every work is already partially spoiled.
The Greeks enjoyed humor, particularly intelligent quips. Greek society prized philosophy but philosophers then, as now, had a habit of droning on and on as they devolved into ever deeper levels of metaphysics. Naturally, Greeks prized a clever comeback which ended a long-winded debate, destroyed another’s ideological position and embarrassed a well-known scholar. If the Greeks had Youtube it would be filled with videos with titles like, “SOCRATES DESTROYS MELETUS’ EMOTIONS AND FEELINGS WITH FACTS AND LOGIC!” “FOOLISH PLATO’S FORMS AND IDEAS GETS WREAKED BY ARISTOTLE.”
One of the most famous quips was between Plato and fellow philosopher, dog-lover, and guy who lived in a barrel, Diogenes. Plato was giving a talk about his Theory of Forms. He argued that the world humans inhabited was a shadow of a perfect world. In our world there are circles, but none are perfectly circular. There are lines but none of them are perfectly straight. You get the idea. As Plato droned on, Diogenes interrupted and asked, “What about a cup? Is there a perfect cup?” Annoyed, Plato responded, “Of course.” Diogenes then replied, “And what about the emptiness in the cup? Is there such as thing as perfect emptiness?” This caught Plato off-guard. After all, a cup is an invention meant to hold liquid. What determines if something is perfect? Is the cup only perfect because it imitates the shape of liquid or can it be perfect in itself? This quandary caught Plato off-guard. Before he could recover, Diogenes pointed at Plato’s head and said, “I think the perfect emptiness is right there.” Diogenes trolled Plato a lot. Plato once described humans as a “featherless biped” to which Diogenes held up a plucked chicken and said, “Behold! A man!”
Quips weren’t just a means of winning an argument, but also a way to demonstrate bravery. They were the classical world’s equivalent to action movie one-liners. Some of the most famous came from the Battle of Thermopylae. At one point a soldier complained to King Leonidas that the Persians’ arrows were so numerous that they blotted out the sun, to which the king replied, “Won’t it be nice, then, if we shall have shade to fight under?” Then when the Persian emissary approached the Greeks and told them to throw down their weapons, Leonidas replied, “Come and take them!” The Romans also enjoyed one-liners that showcased a man’s courage. In one written work Nero sentenced a guard to death. His fellows dug a grave in front of him before his execution, at which point the undeterred guard looked at their work and said, “They can’t even do that right!”
Under Alexander the Great and his successors the Greeks conquered from Anatolia to Egypt all the way east to the Himalayas, spreading their culture with them. Their version of comedy followed, though historians record that by then Greek humor for the masses was very low-brow with stock characters and was on the level of a modern-day sitcom. Roman humor wasn’t much different, and all surviving Roman plays were adaptations of Greek ones. Elite Romans enjoyed high-brow Latin puns and turn of phrase, with one joke going, “A man, standing before a censor, is about to testify, whether he has a wife. The censor asks: Do you have, in all your honesty, a wife? To which he replies, I surely do, but not in all my honesty.” While the elites laughed at linguistic jokes the average Roman enjoyed sex jokes and other lowbrow humor. Not that elites were entirely above that as well. In 80 BCE the young ambassador Julius Caesar visited Nicomedes IV of Bithynia and spent so much time there that rumors spread that the two were lovers. Caesar’s enemies later referred to him as “The Queen of Bithynia” and, after the conquest of Gaul, claimed, “Caesar conquered Gaul, but Nicomedes conquered Caesar.”
Western Europe inherited a long tradition of humor, but this all changed when everyone started dying. First the Antonine Plague killed one out of every ten people, then the barbarians invaded and raided across the frontiers, then usurper generals constantly drained resources from the people in their wars for personal glory, and finally the economy collapsed. For the average Roman it was hard to laugh when the world was ending. Certainly Late Romans didn’t produce much in the way of humor. Historian Danuta Shanzer writes, “There is indeed less humour in its standard homes in the early Middle Ages. Representatives of the comic genres either never existed or failed to survive: no early medieval comedy [still exists] (unless one happens to ﬁnd the [play] Querolus amusing).” I’m not one to criticize another historian, but that’s a pretty harsh way to burn someone who’s been dead for 16 centuries. Imagine you are trying to bring people smiles in a crumbling empire, and a little joy to get them through their miserable day and over a thousand years later a historian writes, “He was the Western Roman Empire’s last comedian and he was terrible. Life was already bad enough with pandemics and the Huns and then he came along.”
The only thing worse for comedy than everybody dying was everybody finding Jesus. Christianity brought people comfort in a world torn apart by war and disease. But, in the Bible Jesus never once laughed. He smiled, turned water to wine and was generally a great guy, but he never once laughed. The Bible in general is not very intentionally funny, and Christian theologians discouraged laughter which they viewed as an uncontrolled emotion. Even worse than regular clergy were monks. As Matthew Innes notes, “[The Rule of Benedict] condemned laughter as idle and pointless, incompatible with prayer and proper reverence for the suffering of Christ, indicative of a lack of moderation and loss of self-control, and likely to lead to argument and dissension within the community.” Theologians argued that barbarians laughed due to their lack of self-control, while a good Christian must remain in control of their faculties at all times. On this Shanzer writes that, “While one can write books on ‘Greek Comedy’ or ‘Roman Laughter’, ‘Christian Laughter’ would hardly make a leaﬂet. All manner of things failed to amuse: scatology was out.” It’s true; Christianity set poop jokes back a thousand years, and hurt sexual humor too. Dirty humor was out the window in the West. Theologians also condemned plays and most forms of entertainment, meaning whatever was left of comedy as a profession evaporated. This is in contrast to the Eastern Roman Empire, which continued its long-standing tradition of comedic performances, even while Christianizing. The Greek east was definitely the fun half of the empire.
Since comedy was condemned and laughter discouraged the Western Roman Empire became a very unfunny place for a long time. As the Franks abandoned their Germanic humor in favor of Christian piety their favorite form of comedy was the kind involving s words. S wor- oh, swords, sorry I meant, swords. To the Franks few things were funnier than somebody getting murdered. In one story told by Gregory of Tours, a bishop begged Clovis to return a plundered vase. Clovis agreed and asked for the vase “in addition to his share.” One soldier was angry at giving back the plunder and smashed the vase. In response, Clovis bashed his head in with an ax. Hilarious. Also there’s apparently a pun in there involving the Latin word for ‘pot.’ ‘Pot,’ could also be slang for ‘head’ so here Clovis was saying, “you smashed my pot, I’ll smash yours.” [Rimshot sound effect] It’s a murder, and a pun!
Humor also became a weapon as the powerful used ridicule to belittle their enemies. When Childebert II of Austrasia uncovered an assassination plot his guards seized the would-be assassins and cut off their hands, ears and noses, in the Byzantine fashion as a means of ridiculing them before the public. This wasn’t supposed to be funny in a ‘haha’ way, but ‘funny’ in that “look at these freaks, they thought they were so powerful and would take over the kingdom, now see what they were reduced to.”
But Francia wasn’t entirely without humor. Just mostly. People probably laughed a lot and shared jokes whenever an uptight priest wasn’t around. Most jokes probably didn’t survive but being humans these people had to find some things funny. Moreover, Christian leaders didn’t ban humor or the appreciation of humor wholesale. Godly people weren’t supposed to laugh but they were allowed to smile. In the Gospels Jesus does smile, and so his emulators, such as Martin of Tours, smiled at what they found humorous. One could appreciate humor, so long as one didn’t lose their composure.
Comedy revived under Charlemagne. Yes, Charlemagne was so influential on Western culture he even brought back comedy. The court at Aachen had actors, jesters and mimes. According to Einhard, Charlemagne had scribes record “the ancient and most barbarous songs, in which the deeds of the kings of old were told.” Poets wrote humorous anecdotes. Even the great Alcuin, who I depicted as a stick-in-the-mud compared to Theodulf of Orléans, told jokes, though Alcuin’s jokes weren’t as transgressive. Alcuin struggled with the concept of laughter. He knew Jesus wasn’t recorded as laughing and was well aware of church opinion on humor. But the Biblical Jacob literally named his son ‘Isaac,’ meaning laughter. The scholar decided that laughter was permissible as long as it was controlled and served a higher purpose.
Alcuin’s manuscript the Disputatio Pippini exemplified his style of humor. The manuscript begins with riddles and what Martha Bayless calls “wisdom literature”; questions and answers meant to expand a person’s reasoning faculties. Some of these questions were, “What is a letter? A silent messenger?” “What is a word? The betrayer of the soul.” “What are feet? Moveable pedestals.” While the wisdom literature was serious, Alcuin wrote numerous riddles in the same style, such as, “Which women are the best to marry? Rich ones that die fast.” “Who can kill a man and get away with it? A physician,” and “Recently Diaulus was a physician. Now he is an undertaker. As an undertaker he does the same thing he did when he was a physician.” His stuff is hardly comedy gold, but he did a good job being funny for someone who thought laughing was sin.
Charlemagne enjoyed humor, though as a moral Christian king he refrained from laughing, instead smiling widely. He drank, but never became drunk. He was jovial, but never uncontrolled; at least that’s the record we have of him. Humor was widespread at court and even religious figures joked, though sometimes at their expense. In one story a young relative of Charlemagne was singing a hymnal. The king turned to one of his bishops and commented on how well the boy sang. The bishop thought he was joking and replied, “Yes, that’s how country-folk sing when they are following their oxen at the plough,” which didn’t go over well with King Charlie, but shows how humor wasn’t just permitted but expected at Aachen.
Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious didn’t share his father’s good humor. In fact, he was legendarily humorless. “Thegan, bishop of Trier, wrote of Louis the Pious, ‘He never raised his voice in laughter, not even at the height of the festivities when, to the joy of the people, actors, jesters and mimes with ﬂutes and cithars appeared before him, not even as the people in his presence laughed in measure; he never even allowed his white teeth to be bared in laughter.’” In preparing this episode I read a forty-page essay by historian Matthew Innes about how unfunny Louis was, which is pretty incredible if you think about it. Not my work for this podcast, though that is also incredible, but the fact that academics can literally publish peer-reviewed papers on how much of a tightwad Louis was. Louis did not drink in moderation; he didn’t drink at all. He turned down his nose at comedy and barely smiled at humor. Yet, the court demanded entertainment, so there were still shows with actors, mimes, musicians and jesters. But can you imagine how awkward that would be? These performers’ job was to make people laugh but the emperor claimed their work was barely-tolerated, degenerate nonsense. They’re trying to lighten the mood but every time they say something the crowd turns to Louis to see if his thin lips have cracked the slightest smile to see if they can enjoy the show? And the only jokes they can tell were language puns since they couldn’t talk sex, crass jokes, politics and religion? Louis’ entertainment was comedians who couldn’t tell jokes talking to an audience that wouldn’t laugh. Aachen became a comedy graveyard and Louis was the grim reaper.
Louis was a man, and all men are mortal, thus Louis was mortal. When he died humor was more accepted. Our records are limited, and without the proper context it’s hard to tell what was meant to be humorous. The best satire is often so similar to reality that it’s hard to tell the two apart, and for that reason some works historians take seriously may actually be comedies. Historians of yesteryear regularly dealt with battles, dates and figures, usually because there are available sources for all of these. Increasingly, historians are conducting the hard work of recreating temporal experiences. The history of emotions is increasingly popular as scholars work to recreate the feelings of our ancestors. Their tastes in humor varied. The Greeks liked quips, the Romans preferred dirty humor, the Merovingians laughed when somebody died horribly, and the Carolingians enjoyed puns, riddles and allusion, but ultimately everyone laughs…except Louis the Pious.
Ed. Guy Halsall, Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 2002.
Mary Beard, Humour in ancient Rome was a matter of life and death, New Statesman, 12 June 2014.
Jason Daley, Recently Unearthed Roman Latrine Was Full of Dirty Jokes, Smithsonian Magazine, 6 Nov. 2018.